A la recherche du pain perdu…

The bread in Cambodia is not quite right. Baguettes are everywhere, on the street stalls, in bars, at markets. But when you tear the golden husk, it cracks and blisters. The flesh is dry and bubbly and disappears on your tongue like dead sherbet. I had a hangover a few weeks back and ordered a baguette at a pretty fancy joint, thinking it would break the run of powdery baked goods. It did not, but you could have absolutely skimmed a few slices across the pool and broken somebody’s face.

So today, I ordered some eggs and bread, expecting good to very good eggs, and shit to inedible bread. What followed was a taste experience of Proustian proportions. Solid, thick, white, perfectly toasted bread, half soaked through with salted butter. It’s been a while since I’ve had these feelings for my bread friend.

It makes it all the more magical that this is occurring in Southeast Asia. It lets my mind run off on imaginings on where all the perfect ingredients could have come from. Flour ground in the foothills of the Cardamoms, oil shipped on a sailboat across the Gulf of Thailand. In all probability, it could just be from a particularly good bread mix packet in the supermarket, but eating it here gives it a certain stamp of quality and adventure. I’ve had really, really good bread in Manchester, but it didn’t quite elicit the same reaction.

A thundering rain shower brings a drop in temperature in Phnom Penh, the really loud English people at the table next to me who’ve spent an hour discussing luxury spa breaks in Thailand finally fuck off and it’s just me, my bread and a drain of coffee.

It’s the little things.

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My time so far in a land far away: Part 1

I have been a resident of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for 7 weeks and almost 3 days. I came here to work and see things. That is all. My life in Ireland was good, comfortable and easy. In a sense. As the dogs on the road know, Ireland’s seen better days. The news is sad every day, the politicians are shit. I’m not normally one to be so reductionist about politics but the ones in Ireland are just shit. There’s no mad drama, there’s no threat on your life if you protest. In fact, there aren’t really any protests, none of note anyway. Everything was just slowly getting sadder and a bit more grey and I wanted to celebrate my birthday in 2011 with a sense that something new had happened in my life and that I wasn’t part of the Irish decay.

So I have somehow ended up in Southeast Asia, having never been in any part of Asia before, working and living in a city that, at best, stuns me and, at worst, terrifies the actual soul out of my body. I was mad keen on starting a blog about being here but I’m full sure I’ll fall into the trap of talking about how how wonderful the work of the many NGOs is (it is, but I don’t want to bang on about it), or end up banging on about prostitution or the Khmer Rouge or something I really know nothing about. Instead, I just want to list the little things, the everyday things that make it so interesting to be here. The normal stuff that goes on all the time here that makes me feel like such a newcomer to the world that I might as well be learning to ride a bike for the first time or wee in a potty. These are my thoughts of Cambodia:

1) None of the kids wear pants. None of them. They only wear tshirts and run around like they are on speed and do high fives with you. I imagine that there’s some kind of unspoken rule about letting the kid leg it around the city like a little Porky Pig sans trousers, and then when they hit 8, there’s a ceremony where they get presented with their first pair of pants and they hate it. I’d like if the no pants rule extended to me as it would prevent a lot of unecessary sweating.

2) Things are not like they are in travel ads, sometimes local people think you are a dick and they don’t smile at you and it is fine. When I arrived, I was TERRIFIED of getting on a motorbike, one of the main means of transport in Phnom Penh. You get on a man’s moto, he drives you somewhere and you are at his mercy for the journey. The second time I took a moto, I got off the bike and was so thrilled at having survived/not fallen off/not pissed myself, I started telling the moto driver how afraid I’d been but I was so brave etc…I have never had someone tell me to fuck off using only their eyes as well as that moto driver did. He was brilliant.

3) Other people will think things are amazing and you will not, that is also ok. Before coming here, the entire population of Dublin told me about backpacker stuff and how class it was and how much I’d love it. I was born in a city, I grew up in a city. I’m also not sure if anyone’s noticed but there are no insects in Ireland except the odd ant in July and a few woodlice for posterity. I was not prepared for this. I went to a popular backpacker’s retreat outside of Phnom Penh and lived amongst frogs, lizards the length of my arm and a selection of insects and butterflies. I also woke up in the night as there was a rustling on my pillow. I looked across and saw a thick piece of wood which I picked up to throw off the pillow. It was not wood, it was an insect that looked like it was made of fucking tobacco. I have also seen a bat get ┬ámurdered by a fan blade. Me and the nature buzz = not pals, except for the lizards.

4) There is nothing like cycling in a country where rules of the road are entirely subjective. Cycling here is like rubbing vaseline and salt into your eyes and then trying to play a really high level of Tetris. Jeeps, trucks, cars, motos and tuk tuks are flying around and you are a lone blip on the radar. Blipping along trying not to get a smack of something but also seeing the city from the greatest vantage point. The bikes here are amazing. Cheap, sturdy and with bells that would deafen you from half a mile.

5) Oreos here give you the shits. I can’t provide physical evidence of this currently as it would probably contravene some kind of international law if I were to post a photo of my post-Oreo faeces, but just believe me. It’s been a very sad goodbye between me and the heavenly sandwich snack.